My Shrinking, Unfamiliar Self in the Workplace

My Alba Work Story: At the checkout counter

Hong Sun-yeong | 기사입력 2023/11/21 [13:32]

My Shrinking, Unfamiliar Self in the Workplace

My Alba Work Story: At the checkout counter

Hong Sun-yeong | 입력 : 2023/11/21 [13:32]

My narrow, inescapable space: the checkout counter


On December 14th of last year, at 3:30 am, an alba worker in a convenience store in the Jillyang Eup district of Gyeongsan, Gyeongbuk was murdered. This was very upsetting to me, as someone who was also an alba worker in a convenience store at the time. They said that a customer who was angry at being asked to pay 20 won (2 cents USD) for a plastic bag brought a weapon from home and stabbed the alba worker. After reading the article about the incident, I kept imagining it happening in my workplace. I wondered whether I’d be able to avoid someone who came there to murder me, if I’d be able to escape.


▲ When I worked in the convenience store, my lunch was always expired lunchboxes. ⓒHong Sun-yeong

Once I was working at the convenience store when a drunk middle-aged customer came in. I had seen him three times before. He was always disheveled and would buy five-or-six bottles of makgeolli [rice liquor] at a time. Like usual, he brought five bottles of makgeolli to the counter and asked for cigarettes. But when I was scanning the bar codes, I saw out of the corner of my eye that his pants were undone. And he wasn’t wearing underwear, and his genitals were coming out of his pants.


Shocked, I recoiled. But he didn’t move, even after he finished paying and I put the items in a plastic bag. Keeping my eyes on the cash register, I said, “Have a nice day” – but he just kept staring at me. A thousand thoughts ran through my head. ‘What should I do? Does our store have a panic button? If I scream, could someone outside hear it? How could I get outside...” I’m not sure how long he actually stood there staring at me, but it felt like a very long time to me, and my whole body was paralyzed.


Luckily, he left without doing anything else. I immediately went to open the front and back doors of the store so that someone could hear me if I screamed. My legs felt weak, and I was offended and depressed. I thought about what to do next time he came in. If he (or someone else) came behind the counter where I stood... I imagined myself being victimized without being able to move from that narrow space. There would be no way to escape.


Middle-aged male customers were really rude


I’ve mainly worked in service positions, and I find dealing with middle-aged male customers to be the most difficult. When I worked at the convenience store, there was one such man who would always buy me snack foods or chocolate when he came in. He was about my father’s age. At first, I was pleased and accepted the food he bought for me, but from a certain point he started to say weird things. “Don’t worry, I’m not doing this because I like you. I know I’m handsome, but don’t get a crush on me.” “Want to KakaoTalk with me?” In my everyday life I would have cursed him out, but standing behind the counter of the convenience store, I found myself just smiling awkwardly.  


Middle-aged men in front of the counter were quite rude. When I first started working at the convenience store, countless numbers of them snapped at me for not being able to find their cigarettes fast enough. There were also many who used the kind of rude language that you usually only hear in movies and threw their money on the counter.


▲ “We want to work safely”. After the death of a convenience store alba worker, the convenience store workers section of the Arbeit Workers Union held the “Convenience Store Alba Human Rights Declaration” press conference on December 15, 2016. ⓒArbeit Workers Union

When I worked at a fast-food franchise, as well, I encountered a terrible middle-aged male customer. Customers usually chose the ingredients they wanted on their customizable “signature burger” from a kiosk, but this guy came to the counter and had me enter each ingredient into the cash register. I wasn’t that good at the cash register yet so it took me a while, and he shouted at me and hit the cash register several times. When he threw the receipt at me, saying “Learn how to do your job!”, I almost burst into tears, even though I should have spit at him.


After that, when I had to take large middle-aged men’s orders, my shoulders would stiffen and I’d find myself holding my breath. The fact that I turned to ice during my brief encounters with those (asshole) men made me want to pat myself and say kind things. Like that I hadn’t done anything wrong enough to deserve their reactions, anything to earn such disrespect, and that they weren’t people that I should fear and cower in front of.


Covering up my emotions, menstrual pain, and eczema


The manager of the fast food restaurant always told me to smile cheerfully. They said that when I took an order, handed customers their food, or made a mistake, the most important thing was the angle of my eyes and mouth. I felt alienated from myself as I forced my mouth to smile and spoke in a voice I had never used before.


When employees answer customers, they use “cushion language”, which means they speak as mildly and indirectly as possible. For example, even when a customer makes a rude request, employees have to respond with, “I’m sorry, but…”, “It’s our fault that that’s not possible,” and “You’re right, but…”


One of the women I did alba with had such bad menstrual pain that she would sink behind the counter, and then pop up with a smile when customers came. At that time I felt sorry for her, but before I knew it, I realized that I was doing the same at the convenience store job. Saying something different than what I was thinking and subduing my facial expressions was harder than I would have thought. But I still found myself naturally putting on this mask when I came into the store.


▲ My desk. My actual self and the cowed person I present at work are different. ⓒHong Sun-yeong

It wasn’t just my face and voice I tried to control. When I was doing alba, I suffered from bad eczema, which was visible on my arms. When they saw my arms, customers would freely say things like, “How can a girl have [scratching] scars like that on her arms?” or, “Gross.”  Even though eczema is not contagious, I felt I had to wear a long-sleeved cardigan even in the warm restaurant in case the customers felt repulsed when I passed them their food.


I remember closing my eyes and saying, “Let’s get through another day” when it was time to go to work. I wanted to escape from the hot fried potato grease, customers’ appalling behavior, the cold convenience store, and my own fake smile. But if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to support myself. Really, I couldn’t even support myself while I was putting up with those things. It didn’t matter how many hours I worked, they would just give me the minimum monthly wage. There are even many alba workers who are paid less than the monthly minimum wage and do not receive the protections guaranteed them by the Labor Standards Act.


Sometimes I had two shifts of different alba jobs on the same day. On those days, it was hardest when I got home. I’d wonder, “Why can’t I earn enough money?”, “Why am I poor?”, “Why do I have bad eczema that I have to pay to have treated?” I kept comparing my life to those of others, pushing myself to the edge of a cliff. Even though I knew that it was making things worse, I kept measuring my situation and living conditions against others’ and absolutely hated my existence. 


Hoping for a day when discussing my work doesn’t mean sharing my suffering


The self that I presented after doing alba for a while was unfamiliar to me. I wasn’t originally that kind of person. I’m naturally an awesome person who likes spending time with others, speaks up about things that bother me, and helps other people get the money their boss tries to cheat them out of. I’m endlessly facing my inner contradictions. The subservient self from my workplace and my (non-subservient) authentic selves are continually competing and negotiating with each other inside me.


▲ Myself (left) and Labor Party candidate Ha Yun-jeong. ⓒHong Sun-yeong

I’ve told my story to the world before. It was during the last general election, when I was helping to campaign for Labor Party candidate Ha Yun-jeong, who advocated feminism. I shared my painful alba experiences with passers-by on the street. I said that policies like a 10,000-won-per-hour minimum hourly wage, universal provision of menstrual leave, or guaranteed basic income could change my daily life so that I no longer hated my existence.


These politics that powerless people like me speak up for might seem absurd, but they are actually ideas that can change people’s lives. If the minimum wage became 10,000 won, I wouldn’t have to work two alba jobs. In my new free time, I would be able to spend time with others and do things that I like to do. I wouldn’t have to endure physical pain. If a scary middle-aged man verbally abused me, I could confidently exercise my rights, which are currently being denied me. Or if I found myself in an unbearable working situation, I could quit without regret. I could use menstrual leave without worry.


The rights to stand up to customers who humiliate me, work in a space structured to allow me to escape the threat of sexual violence, and act like myself in the workplace instead of forcibly hiding my true nature, are matters of dignity that would empower me to no longer hate myself. I hope that a day comes when talking about my work doesn’t mean discussing experiences of bowing and scraping and other painful things.


Published July 7, 2017

Translated by Marilyn Hook

Original article:


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